In the final week of training camp, Vikings secondary coach Joe Woods came off the practice fields at Minnesota State Mankato and couldn't contain his enthusiasm. ¶ So many questions about his defensive backs loomed. Yet so few seemed to fluster the assistant in charge of finding answers. ¶ Woods remains convinced that his current stable of cornerbacks is on the verge of a growth spurt, and there's no way you can talk him out of it.
Sure, the top trio of Chris Cook, Josh Robinson and Xavier Rhodes has a combined 24 NFL starts with two career interceptions. And yes, the Vikings open the season on the road the first two weeks against what might be the NFC's top two receivers — Detroit's Calvin Johnson and Chicago's Brandon Marshall.
Still, Woods won't admit an ounce of apprehension for the potential hazards ahead.
"It doesn't bother me a bit, man," he said. "When you teach guys and coach them up and you know they understand everything they're supposed to do, why am I going to worry? For me, it's more, 'Hey, I want to see what they've got.'"
With the regular season arriving, Woods said he believes his cornerbacks have a blend of eagerness and resilience that will help offset their inexperience.
"I have a smart group. I have a tough group. I have a disciplined group," Woods said. "And through my experience, when you have those qualities, you know the improvement is right behind. You can see a togetherness. It's a tight group. And there's energy there. All of them want to be the next Antoine Winfield."
Oh, yeah. About that …
After nine seasons in Minnesota, the Vikings cut Winfield in March and failed to re-sign him at a discount. So now, the three-time Pro Bowler, the intuitive slot corner who had long provided the secondary with stability, savvy and swagger, is in Seattle. And that's created a gaping hole that this current group of corners must fill. In a pass-happy division. And at a position where a 95 percent success rate quickly can be overshadowed by one or two game-changing mistakes.
For all the questions facing the defense, none presents more uncertainty than the cornerback situation.
Cook, 26 and the oldest corner on the roster, has missed 26 games over his first three seasons. His next big step doesn't only involve becoming more consistent outside, it involves staying available for a full season.
"We need someone to take on that role as a leader that Antoine had," Cook said. "That can be me. And it means I'll have to help guys keep their focus and keep their confidence, even when receivers make a few plays."
Meanwhile, Robinson, 22, has taken on a new role as the slot corner in nickel packages, a position he never played nor studied much before May. Which means he still is learning all about run fits while sharpening the feel it takes to play inside where defensive back coverage responsibilities must be combined with a linebacker's vision to defend the run.
And Rhodes, 23, remains a rookie. A tall, physical and confident rookie, for sure. But still, there's no telling how quickly he'll adapt to NFL speed.
"I've never played on this level, never played against this talent," Rhodes said. "It's a great opportunity, and I can't wait to get out there. But there's no question that the tempo, even in practices, is much, much faster."
Over the past two seasons, the Vikings secondary has collected only 15 interceptions, with the defense allowing 62 TD passes in the same span. It's an eye-opening discrepancy that needs fixing. And it's also worth noting that the Vikings will play 10 games in which they face a quarterback and/or receiver voted into last year's Pro Bowl.
The margin for error will be thin. And the depth at cornerback might be even thinner. Yet after a long stretch of preparation — from OTAs to minicamp to training camp — Woods knows his players must face their next test.
"Eventually," he said, "you need to let them on the field and let them do what they do."